On Healing

Dan Gottlieb

On Healing

By Dan Gottlieb*

Revenge and hatred will not solve the problems behind terrorism

Tuesday was my daughter Debbie's 27th birthday. When she was a child, I remember, I held her in my lap as TV showed a police helicopter dropping a bomb on what has become known as the MOVE house in West Philadelphia. When she asked "What is happening, Daddy?" I began to cry. I wanted more for my children. Nevertheless, several years later our family watched Operation Desert Storm on television and talked about its meaning.

Debbie now lives outside Washington with her husband and son, Sammy. My other daughter lives outside New York. Although I knew everyone was all right in the hours following Tuesday's terrorist attacks, I still needed to make contact with them. When I did, I said I was writing a column about the horror but didn't know what to say. Debbie sent me this e-mail:

I wonder if someone is really going to employ the theory that because thousands of innocent Americans have died, the only way to rectify this is to kill thousands of other innocent people from another country . . . you know? I'm not sure, but if this IS what we end up doing, I would guess that they would then retaliate. And then we. And then . . .

I remember you telling me during Desert Storm that 'violence begets violence'; what I DON'T remember is hearing you tell me that 'violence rectifies violence.'

I don't know what you're planning on writing, but please write something. This country needs as many voices of peace and stability as it has to offer. It breaks my heart to raise Sammy under these circumstances. I want for him the complete opposite of what is being held out to him today. The innocence that all of our families and friends have lost today is invaluable, irreplaceable.

It's called terrorism because it produces terror.

Many of us know terror. It's what we feel when the doctor says, "There is something wrong." It's what we feel when a loved one is dying and there is nothing we can do to stop it. Or when someone with AIDS wakes up to another life-threatening symptom. Yes, many of us know terror, but this time it is different. What happened last week was the result of terrorists, evil people, not a disease.

Or was it?

My sister had a brain tumor called a glioblastoma. This is a particularly virulent cancer, and it is supported by a microscopic root network throughout the brain. She had surgery to remove the tumor, but it grew back. She had surgery again, but again it grew back. All the surgery did was postpone her almost inevitable death from the cancer. We could not kill the root network without destroying her brain.

Our world has a glioblastoma. Sure, the terrorists are the tumor. But when President Bush says he will "whip terrorism," he is being very naive, very political, or both. At best, he — we — will destroy some terrorists. And maybe that is a necessary consequence of last week's act of evil. But, like the glioblastoma, terrorism is supported by a root network. And while terrorism might be evil, this root network is not. This network is people who live with oppression, repression, poverty, hunger, despair and hopelessness. These are people desperate to survive. This is the root network, and it consists of people who experience unfathomable suffering. In the same way that blood feeds the root network of the glioblastoma, hatred feeds the network of terrorism. Their hatred and ours.

Despite the ultimate harm that hatred and rage cause, they are natural reactions to trauma. Whenever someone injures us, it is as if they had stolen a piece of our lives. We are left feeling bereft, vulnerable, terrified. To cope, we seek justice and retribution. But ultimately the hatred causes more suffering, both for those who hate and those who are hated. Hatred in the search for retribution or revenge or justice causes more hatred, not less suffering.

What can be done? Plenty. But for the first time in my 30 years of observing human nature professionally, I feel pessimistic. I am afraid we will "whip" some terrorists but will continue to turn a deaf ear to those who suffer. I am afraid we will continue with self-righteous and arrogant posturing, and our illusion of power.

Most of all, I think we will continue our cycle of injury, hatred, and retribution.

But for those of us who want to do something, I have some recommendations:

  1. Love those whom you love, only do it more consciously. This will bring you more joy.
  2. Love those whom you don't know. It will make your sense of community bigger and more trustworthy.
  3. Love those whom you fear. It will make you feel safer and sleep better.
  4. Love those whom you hate. Who knows — it might save the world.

The world has a glioblastoma, and the prognosis is poor. We must pray for a miracle. After that, let's do something to create one.

"On Healing" appears on the first and third Mondays of every month. Dan Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist specializing in family therapy. Write to him at WHYY Radio, 150 N. Sixth St., Philadelphia 19106. Or e-mail: voicesin@aol.com.